Blurred Boundaries: Approaches to Defining Documentaries and Reality Television

Curator's Note

In 1973, the world was introduced to the Loud Family on PBS’s An American Family. As viewers became engaged with the lives of Bill, Pat and their children, questions about the authenticity of the show arose. Was this show truly a documentation of this family’s life or was it a story created by editing, performance and the influence of production personnel? Promoted as a documentary series, the show did not include typical elements found in documentaries of the time like interviews or narration. So was An American Family a documentary or a Reality TV show?

In order to answer that question, we would need to first establish a definition for each form that distinguishes between them. But is describing the difference between the two a simple task? Let’s take the following definition from Bill Nichols as a starting point.

“Documentary speaks about situations and events involving real people (social actors) who present themselves to us as themselves in stories that convey a plausible proposal about, or perspective on, the lives, situations, and events portrayed. The distinct point of view of the documentary shapes this story into a way of seeing the…world directly rather than into a fictional allegory” 

Now re-read the above definition and substitute “reality television” for “documentary.”  Does the description work for both? The definition attempts to define its subject based on content, but as the boundaries for the differences between each form continue to blur, is this the most effective strategy? Perhaps a more effective approach would be to question the program's objective. This would provide a clearer line of demarcation. For example, some might say the objective of reality television programs is to make money. The shows seek to attract audiences so they can sell advertising time and generate revenue. Or is that too simple a definition?

Conversely, documentary filmmakers objectives seem to be more diverse. While some are motivated by profit, most documentarians would likely describe their motivations as having a desire to create a work of art, to persuade audiences on a particular political position or to tell the story of an individual or event. This results in a product that moves beyond entertainment and capitalist intent and provides a site of cultural discourse.

What do you think? As our media products change, do we need to explore new ways of defining and differentiating between them and if so, how is that best accomplished?


I think the question you ask is an absolutely necessary one, but I think it may be harder to answer definitively than it would be to speculate upon. Media products have never been constant, but the sea change that has come about with interactivity and an increasing presence of the synopticon and its relationship to the normalization of the surveillance society.

I think that all of the posts this week highlight the instability of these generic signifiers. I think that Evan's inclination to move beyond the texts themselves is appropriate if we hope to "define" programs as one or the other. Discursive practices surrounding these programs, such as advertisements, fan communities, and other paratexts all influence how we, as audiences, hope to define them based upon our own preconceived notions about the purposes (for lack of a better word) and style of each.

I worry about defining texts through their use in part because sometimes normative uses of texts don't actually speak to much of their textual power. The flow of advertising or financing dollars in particular makes me think a bit of seeing state-financed Griersonian documentaries in school and thinking through the various ways in which some of the techniques were innovative regardless of funding sources (like the muckraking and direct participatory style of *Housing Problems*) or actual communities of practice that may have used the documentaries. Audience formation, financing, and other components affect texts in unpredictable ways, and not always in ways that align with what is (or might be) happening in the text. "Honey Boo Boo" is a good example of a show that I'm sure I watch far more earnestly -- and with a more good-natured appreciation for the family I'm watching -- than most of its audience. In a word, I think it's a brilliant show, and more innovative than any number of postclassical docs I see in theaters. I have trouble limiting my own interpretation of it simply because of how it's more commonly used as a cultural weapon against certain social classes. I'm not convinced that that's how the creators or subjects approach the production of the show, even if it's how the show is widely marketed and seen.

I'm fascinated by the responses from students in the video here -- these all seem fairly ad hoc and easily refuted in almost every instance with a number of counter-examples. "Reality TV doesn't generally ask a question of its subjects"; "reality TV isn't real"; "reality TV is [merely] the tracking of everyday activities"; "reality TV is scripted" -- none of these are even remotely accurate of documentary practices. I usually point students toward Troy Devolld's supremely cynical insider's guide, "Reality TV: A Guide to the World's Hottest Market," where the shaping in editing and post-production is discussed extensively, but one thing that is absolutely clear is that "scripting" as we understand it in fiction is not really on the table *even when producers are self-consciously manipulating their subjects*. If anything, reality TV tends to abide by a different set of *ethical* standards around subject participation, but that speaks more to the disparate nature of filmic doc production and the lack of any "one" system of ethics outside of larger industrial practice. They're still banking on things to happen relatively spontaneously and serendipitously, albeit with some major assumptions about how subjects will interact in a space. To me this is no different than approaching an interview understanding how a subject will respond, taking a subject to a key location to speak to his or her experiences, or any other forms of subtler staging that nonetheless lead to a wide but still delimited set of responses expected and manipulated by the documentarian.

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